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Last night, I was driving behind a truck that had a very official-looking sign like this:

WARNING Stay back 200 ft. Not responsible for broken windshields!

(Sign says, "WARNING STAY BACK 200 FT. NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR BROKEN WINDSHIELDS!")

Some cursory Googling brought me to this page from an attorney (who is coincidentally in my home state) who claims:

The simple fact is that we are all responsible for the damage we intentionally or negligently cause to others. If you (1) haul rocks, (2) fail to properly secure those rocks, and (3) one of those rocks breaks my windshield, (4) you are responsible for my broken windshield! Likewise, If I wear a t-shirt that says “Not Responsible For Punching You In The Face” and I walk up and punch you in the face, I am responsible for your broken nose.

With respect to this information, what is the legality of these signs?

They appear to be purchased and installed by the company that owns these trucks, but do restrictions exist preventing corporations from obfuscating their liability in public with false claims that are official in appearance?

It seems like some kind of consumer protection might relate to the insurace/liability aspect; from what I understand, the three elements of fraud are satisfied here:

  • intentional deceit, since the company almost certainly knows that this is not true;
  • benefit to the deceiver, since the company may avoid paying reasonable damages by misrepresenting their liability;
  • actual harm caused, since people with windshields damaged by the company won't follow through with reasonable damage claims when they've been misled by the sign.

As an aside, these signs are far too small to be legible from 200 feet away. If they were legally-binding and drivers within 200 feet were at fault for any damage incurred to their vehicles, would there be a valid reasonableness argument against them (the signs) relating to their 'readability' at the prescribed distance?

  • 1
    Not an answer to the question - BUT - the company posting that sign is not responsible, as the question implies. It is the driver of the truck (assuming not an owner-operator). Also, this question has very little to do with 'free speech'. – Paul Jun 7 at 13:33
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    According to mitchell-attorneys.com/common-law-fraud, one of the elements of common-law fraud is that the injured party must have reasonably and justifiably relied on the truth of the defendant's representation. Is it reasonable or justifiable to rely on such a sign when trying to decide whether or not you can sue? – Nate Eldredge Jun 8 at 2:13
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    A couple of key phrases from that link: “[r]eliance is ‘justifiable’ only when ‘circumstances [are] such to make it reasonable for plaintiff to accept defendant’s statements without an independent inquiry or investigation.'". Is it reasonable to base your decision on the sign instead of on independent legal advice? “[a] party is not justified in relying on representations when he or she had ample opportunity to ascertain the truth of the representations before acting.” Surely one has ample opportunity to research the law oneself (or hire a lawyer to do so) before deciding whether to sue. – Nate Eldredge Jun 8 at 2:16
  • @NateEldredge also, the statutory law and case law are (in theory) available to all. In fact, many public libraries will have bound law volumes somewhere with copies of statutes and major cases, and transcripts of historical cases (both precedent-setting and non) are available at courthouses. – Robert Columbia Jun 9 at 11:32
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It is legal to be wrong, it is legal to say false things in public (leaving out defamation), and it is legal to buy and manufacture signs that say false things. Moreover, the sign does not make a false statement, in that legal liability is distinct from moral responsibility. In fact, the sign helps to decrease their legal liability. Via this sign, you have been put on notice that the truck may spray a bit of gravel, so by following too closely, you are negligently contributing to the damage.

This is what also underlies those disclaimer signs with "not responsible for theft from your auto".

There is nothing "official in appearance" about this sign (a legal citation of a statute might have such an appearance).

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    Excellent point regarding moral responsibility versus legal liability as implied by the sign. If the sign were legally binding, would you have a case against the company if the sign wasn't readable within 200 feet and you incurred damage at <200 feet (but still at an illegible distance)? I'm trying to wrap my head around "reasonableness" as a hypothetical here. – Bruce Kirkpatrick Jun 6 at 16:53
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    If you incur damage, you incur damage. I know that sounds cold, but the truck is technically responsible for things flying out of it. – Putvi Jun 6 at 17:37
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    "This is what also underlies those disclaimer signs "not responsible for theft from your auto"." That's different, as those tend to be purporting to modify an implicit contract (you give us money, we let you park in our parking lot, also we're not responsible for theft; waiving liability is a consideration given in exchange for parking in the parking lot). There is no contract, and the truck is not giving consideration. – Acccumulation Jun 6 at 20:23
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    @pace If rocks come free and go flying out of the truck bed, isn't that basically prima facie evidence that they weren't properly secured, as the whole point of securing them is to make sure that they can't do exactly that? – Mason Wheeler Jun 7 at 14:48
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    @MasonWheeler I might have misunderstood. I thought "properly secure" meant "comply with all regulations" and not "secure in such a way that no rock could leave the truck, regardless of conditions". Most regulations boil down to "throw a tarp on it" which greatly reduces, but does not eliminate, loose rocks. Also, all large trucks are more likely to throw up rocks that were already on the highway due to their design. I truly appreciate these warning stickers as a reminder to back off and don't see them merely as a way to avoid liability. – Pace Jun 7 at 21:51
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As a general rule in the United States, in the case of an accidents between a leading vehicle and a following vehicle, the leading vehicle is usually not responsible for the accident as the following vehicle is the one with the duty to avoid colliding with the second car. Considering that the most likely speed to encounter a truck with sufficient speed to cause damage to the following car is an Interstate or other Limited Access Road, and speeds here run at typically 60 miles per hour (1 mile per minute) a 200 foot gap is a distance measured in seconds.

When driving at a full speed on an interstate, it is recommended (but not required) that you keep at least 243 feet between you and the car (assuming both are sedan style or other cars that are traditionally non-work role) ahead of you at highway speed and in optimal conditions, so 200 feet is generous for the truck. It's probably got more to do with vision of a person as ones' vision is measured in 20/X (At a distance of 20 feet, you can read as if it was X distance away.). Typically a person with 20/200 vision is unable to qualify for a license (legally blind) so it's reasonable to assume the sign is some kind of visible to drivers who stray into the range of vision.

As another user noted, this isn't a violation of the First Amendment as it is perfectly legal to lie outside of court, and this is not commercial speech (if they were advertising gravel that doesn't break windows, and it does, that's a violation of commercial speech). Essentially the sign is, in polite terms, saying "We have loose gravel. If you don't want to get your windshield cracked, back the hell up... if you don't want to back up, here's your warning, don't bill us for your idiocy. Sue me!"

Yes, you can still take them to court for claiming the fraudulent aspect and they need to pay, but in all likely hood, the sign means you were warned, you should probably not have been that close anyway as being that close to a truck on a highway is tailgating and can be much more unsafe than a pebble breaking your windshield, and you decided to roll the dice on rule breaking and lost.

Of course, "We are not responsible for damages" is not a lie either. It is their legal claim. If you call them up demanding the pay, that's the answer you will get. If you take them to court to pay, that's how they will plea (Not Guilty) and argue, and as the defendant, they are not legally responsible until the Trier of Fact (The Jury or the Judge) decide otherwise (We find them guilty) because innocent until proven guilty means they aren't responsible unless and until the court says otherwise.

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    “We are not responsible for damages” being their legal claim is an excellent point that I had not considered. I suppose every “not guilty” claim where the claimant is at fault is a lie in some sense, but perhaps not to the claimant if it is their honesty held position. – Bruce Kirkpatrick Jun 6 at 17:20
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    @BruceKirkpatrick: Not necessarily true as the case, resolved against the company does not mean that they won't mount the same defense on a separate incident. Additionally, while they were found liable, it might not be totally liable. This would be a civil case, which allows for wiggle room based on circumstances. And with that said, the 200 ft range might be padded so that by the time the driver can read the sign they're not yet in danger unless the get closer than that. It's not uncommon+ – hszmv Jun 6 at 17:32
  • +Most restricted property in the United States (including restricted by the government) put the sign and fence a few feet back from the propety line so that by the time you're at the fence, you can be arrested for trespassing as the law defines the legal property line, not the fence line, as trespassing. For example, when crossing a land border into the united states, you are legally in the United States, even if you have yet to clear the check point, which is 50 away from the border. This gives the people called out some wiggle room in determining your intention to trespass. – hszmv Jun 6 at 17:37
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – feetwet Jun 7 at 15:33
  • the question did not ask about collisions,but about damages due to falling gravel or similar items. – David Siegel Jun 9 at 14:48
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The title of your question asks about free speech protections, but the body asks about tort liability. The two are completely different things.

All free speech means is that you cannot be criminally prosecuted for the opinions you express. The only limits on free speech are things like fraud, defamation, harassment, threats of harm, etc. Corporations have free speech protections as well (with a few more restrictions), but the example you provided has nothing to do with it.

The sign on the back of that truck is not a misrepresentation or a threat, so free speech is not an issue here.

What you're really asking about is liability, and to that end, there are two legal concepts at play: Duty of care, and duty of caution (or duty to avoid).

Duty of care:
You have a duty to take reasonable steps to protect others from the foreseeable dangers of your actions. For the truck driver in this example, this means making sure that the truck is in good mechanical order, that the load is properly secured, and that they are driving appropriately for the road conditions.

Duty of caution (or duty to avoid):
You have a duty to take steps to protect yourself from the foreseeable dangers of others' actions. For the regular motorist in this example, this means maintaining a safe following distance with the understanding that small rocks and debris are a common hazard with dump trucks.

Failure to abide by either of these duties constitutes negligence.

If the truck driver were acting negligently, a sign cannot magically absolve them of their liability, but it does act as a component of their duty of care. It's there to remind you of the dangers inherent to following too closely and recommends a safe distance. It also lets you know that they plan to assert the full limits of their liability under the law if you try to hold them liable for your cracked windshield.


One more thing:

That lawyer's analogy is just stupid. Getting punched in the face is not an inherent danger that any person acting in a nonviolent manner should reasonably expect. It's a deliberate act of aggression, not a negligence issue.

  • I appreciate you clarifying the inconsistency between my title and the body of my question and taking time to answer both aspects, since I was curious about free speech and liability (I wasn’t sure when denying liability is no longer protected by free speech and would constitute fraud, if at all). Your points on free speech and duty of care/caution are all excellent. – Bruce Kirkpatrick Jun 8 at 4:02
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This doesn't answer the question in your title, but it should at least answer your original concern.

Those signs on trucks are indeed accurate. The quote you posted from the lawyer is accurate. These do not contradict each other. There are two similar hazards at play here; they have different legal consequences, and they're easy to get mixed up.

Your quote is correct that if a truck is carrying loose cargo and it falls off and hits your vehicle, then they are liable. The driver is responsible for properly securing all cargo, and is also responsible for the results of failing to do so.

On the other hand, if the truck drives over loose gravel lying on the roadway and kicks the gravel up onto your vehicle, then the driver is not liable for damages. This is classified as a "road hazard" and the driver of a vehicle cannot be held liable for it.

The latter is the hazard that those signs are warning you about. I've seen them on trucks like you show in the photo, and also on trucks that couldn't possibly haul/drop loose material (like fully-enclosed moving vans, liquid tankers, or school buses).

The "interesting" part is that if something falls off the truck but bounces off the pavement before it hits your vehicle, then it's still considered a road hazard. You might be able to make a case if the load was improperly secured, but proving that the rock that hit you came from the truck and wasn't already on the road would be extremely difficult. Making that case would almost certainly cost you far more than the cost of repairing a windshield chip.

  • Good luck proving that the rock you couldn't find anyway came off that truck and directly struck your vehicle. +1 – Mazura Jun 8 at 3:40
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    @Mazura That might be part of the motivation for a dashcam, I suppose! You don’t need the rock itself if you have footage of it. – Bruce Kirkpatrick Jun 8 at 3:59
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We have in France signs in some shops which state that the shop does not accept 500€ (and sometimes 200€) notes.

In reality, they have no choice but to accept them because this is the law, no matter what their view on that fact is. This does not stop them from publishing such notes.

If they believe the note is counterfeit, they have the legal obligation to call the police (so they cannot say nah, this looks fake to get rid of the problem)


The law states that you have to faire l'appoint, which means give the exact amount of money when paying. Obviously shops traditionally give back change because they like their customers.

This means that:

  • when the price is 503€ and you give 500, 2 and 1 EUR, they have to accept that full stop.
  • when the price is 12€ and you give 500€, they can refuse they payment.
  • when the price is 12€ and you give 500€, and say "keep the change", they can refuse the payment but could accept it as well

All that discussion is valid up to 5000€ (or 3000€, I do not remember), after which you have to pay with other (traceable) means.

0

The sign is clearly legal although its intent is of course deceptive. Do note the precise wording.

It says "Warning. Stay back 200ft.", which is... yeah, whatever.

It also says "Not responsible for broken Windshields!". It doesn't even say who is responsible, or on what base. Your aunt isn't responsible if I break your windscreen? Well, that's definitively a truthful statement.

Besides, responsible, liable, and actionable aren't all the same, either. I'm well responsible for a lot of things, but you can't sue me (not successfully anyway) if I fail to do them, or get me fined or jailed. I am, for example, responsible for putting my garbage can out on the street when garbage disposal comes on Friday. So... I don't do that, and...? I end up with a full garbage can. Try to sue me?

(On the other hand side, I am not responsible if you trip and fall on my property while breaking and entering, but in the USA you can nevertheless quite possibly sue me...)

The sign further doesn't make any statement to the causality of broken windshields. Not responsible for broken windshields due to gravel falling off my truck? Not responsible for broken windshields due to thermal tension? Not responsible for you hitting a bird? Not responsible due to me getting out of my truck and beating your car with a baseball bat? It doesn't say.

It doesn't say "We are not responsible for negligently damaging your winshield". So, whatever it is, it's just... empty words. You cannot even say it's factually wrong.

The sign, by its verbatim wording, is meaningless. The intent is, of course, to discourage people from pressing charges. That's against morale, sure, but it not against the law. One of the most important principles is that where there is no law, there is no felony.

protected by feetwet Jun 7 at 15:29

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